Abolition and Kinship — Tiffany Willoughby-Herard

The prison system and the policing practices that undergird it shape cultures of families in very particular and devastating ways. Incarceration can trigger permanent loss of parental rights not to mention being compelled to bear children while bound in chains suitable only for the coffle and the barracoon. Incarceration for many introduces and for others entrenches the “custodial care” and “detention” of children. Incarceration and state and social confinement thus exacerbates already existing cross-generational trauma; perforating notions of belonging between parent/elders/community/siblings and child and instead stitching in surveillance, insecurity, and threat. Incarceration is one of the most severe and excessive forms of teaching people that their primary relationship of belonging is to the state as its property. Abolition, however, is a set of practices that might make it possible for survivors of detention and policing to acknowledge and rebuke the stigma, deviancy, and pathology that has been attached to black motherhood in the world that slavery made. The simple acts associated with the rearing, guiding, and social reproduction of black people continue to be monitored, scrutinized, criminalized, and commoditized not just by the state but by society at large—allegedly afraid of what Christina Sharpe calls the “catastrophes” that emerge from black women’s wombs. The road to incarceration is paved by surveillance and critiques that demonize and blame poor women for having the temerity to love black children and transmit to them unvarnished truths about the particular vulnerabilities and conditions that mark their lives. I am neither a nationalist nor a separatist, though I ought to be, perhaps, in order to answer June Jordan’s sanguine question about how the “accident rate would lower subsequently.”

Abolition suggests that revolt against the destruction of black kinship is possible at the same time that “justifiable” and “accidental” state murder continues once a day. Abolition means something like a life of swallowing the ocean with each breath, drowning, and being pitied for struggling so hard to survive—but never simply being lifted out of the force of the Middle Passage’s heavy water. Following Jennifer Morgan abolition might mean something which allows black reproductivity to flourish without being merely a “prospect” and investment toward some new deployment of slavery. Every conversation I have had in this collective has been held in the shadow of child theft and the million and one things arrayed against black people being legible to each other as kin, not simply as an article of political commitment but as witnesses who claim the authority to claim each other despite being alienable property. I practice abolition in my daily life by reproducing a politics of blackness that makes kinship a possibility even as it slips beyond my reach time and again. Of course, abolition is about so many more things than this. But it is undeniably this project of decolonizing the brutal disregard for young black people and the people who want them to survive, as well.

– Tiffany Willoughby-Herard

—author of Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Logic of White Vulnerability 

[This post is part of a series of “Abolition Statements” from members of the Abolition Journal Collective and Editorial Review Board. See here for a brief introduction to these posts.]